The Formidable Work of the Present

By Erica EdwardsJune 13, 2011

The Formidable Work of the Present

What Was African American Literature? by Kenneth W. Warren

i see the light

at the end     of you      the beginning

— Evie Shockley, "ode to my blackness"


AFTER HAVING SPENT four weeks on slave narratives and another two weeks on the literature of Reconstruction, my Winter 2011 course, "African American Literature through the Harlem Renaissance," was turning out to be a bleak journey through the lives of America's dispossessed. We were turning the corner to 1925's The New Negro when I sat down to read Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? . I found it a welcome and relevant question. especially after my first sober lecture on African American modernism, when a young black student seated in the front row of the lecture hall asked, "Don't you think our culture was better then, during segregation?" Invoking Lackawanna Blues, George C. Wolfe's 2005 film celebrating the soulways of a 1950s-60s black community in New York, the student invited the class to mourn the passing of a time "when we were colored," when "we" had black neighbors, black music, black food, and black literature within reach of our black fingers. I was baffled by how the student's yearning for de jure segregation as the font of black cultural production could follow so closely, so scandalously, on the heels of six weeks of lectures on torture, lynching, captivity, disenfranchisement, sexual violence, and ideological assault; still, her longing for a golden era — for a light at the beginning of the tunnel, before the end of blackness — was, in a sense, a melancholic attachment to the very object of the class. Indeed, in today's classrooms, African American literature might only exist as a spectre of history provoking, if stubbornly eluding, the troubling questions that Warren's book thoughtfully engages: How do we define "African American" in a post-identity politics university? What counts as "African American literature"?

What Was African American Literature? is a powerhouse of a book. In 180 compact pages, Warren manages to defamiliarize the very notion of national ethnic literatures, unfold provocative readings of texts as diverse as George Schuyler's Black No More and Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down, and rally our deepest fear: that we are obsolete.

Warren's "was" for African American literature depends on a double claim about history: that African American literature was called into being as a response to the specific historical conditions of Jim Crow segregation, and that contemporary conjurings of African American literature as a discrete and identifiable tradition betray an ahistorical longing for a racial solidarity that, after Jim Crow, can no longer be innocently claimed. The former claim will no doubt find a sympathetic audience among some literary historians, especially since the documents Warren analyzes — W.E.B. Du Bois's well known 1926 "Criteria of Negro Art" and Blyden Jackson's 1950 "An Essay in Criticism," among others — provide compelling evidence of African American literature's beginning. The latter claim — that any invocation of "African American literature" is based on a misplaced belief in racial unity that is untenable after civil rights — is, of course, more controversial.

What Was African American Literature? seeks to question the consensus that "Jim Crow has not ended, and that in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the most obvious expressions of segregation and discrimination gave way to more covert but equally pernicious manifestations of racism." Warren finds a species of Jim Crow melancholia surfacing in Benjaminian treatments of slavery (such as Ian Baucom's Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance, Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History), in histories of black radical solidarity (such as Nikhil Pal Singh's Black Is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle of Democracy), and in apologias for black literary studies as the advance guard of social justice (such as John Ernest's Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History). Whereas African American literature was at its inception prospective — that is, it saw itself as an inchoate cultural expression of a disenfranchised people that would someday reach maturity and so make itself obsolete — African American writing today is retrospective. "In a society that no longer sanctions Jim Crow," Warren writes, "there could not be a literature structured by its imperatives. When racial identity can no longer be law, it must become either history or memory — that is, it must be either what some people once were but that we no longer are, or the way we were once upon a time, which still informs the way we are." By exposing the intellectual wrong turns of contemporary scholars of race and African American literature, Warren hopes to show how our love affairs with the past prevent us from accurately accounting for the history of black writing and for contemporary inequalities.

I agree with Warren that it is a mistake to equate current racial inequalities with Jim Crow realities, that such an equation "misunderstands both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one." But his argument that "we have to put the past behind us" erects several straw men he proceeds to castigate. In making his argument that much American scholarship betrays a nostalgia for racial segregation, and in his attempt to disabuse scholars and writers of their suspect uplift projects (he writes against "a belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts"), Warren ignores many of the theorists who might actually be as invested as he is himself in the project of understanding the relationships between power and cultural production in the present.

Even if, as Warren suggests, racism no longer exists as a function of law, how else are we to understand the relation of race to Death Row, what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, calls the "group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death"? How are we to understand the function of race in the late-twentieth century "terror formation" of western warfare — what Achille Mbembe calls the "concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege" ("Necropolitics," Public Culture 15:1)? To claim that "racism" simply "still exists" is, of course, no discovery at all. But how are we to understand the neoliberal project of making racial hierarchy taboo — a project which depends on the reproduction of social hierarchies that at least loosely correspond to race — except as a form of complicity with contemporary configurations of state, corporate, and academic power?

The redeployment of racial particularity in the service of post-civil rights U.S. public culture seems to me a valuable place to begin. If this is, as Roderick Ferguson suggests, "a racial state we have never seen before, one that does not enunciate itself primarily through abstract universalism but that articulates itself through minority difference" ("An American Studies Meant for Interruption," 62:2), what are the cultural effects of this new age's public racework? And insofar as a deployment of racial difference throughout the post-civil rights era calls for a "new" African American literature and finds elaboration in recent writing by black Americans such as August Wilson's Radio Golf, Alice Randall's Rebel Yell, and Evie Shockley's The New Black, we might read this literature as self-consciously writing itself into a "tradition" that was, as indeed Warren intimates, always contested, and therefore never contained by any innocent notion of racial unity or essentialist sensibility. (Witness Charles Johnson's citing "the creation of a true black middle class" as evidence of the "end" of African American narrative as a medium of social protest and as the basis for African American literature's reboot; "The End of the Black American Narrative" in The American Scholar.)

Warren leaves us with several productively troubling conclusions. First, he argues,

African American literature does little more than to summon the past as guarantor of the altruistic interests of the current elites and to express this cadre's proprietary interest in the tastes and habits of the more exploited members of our society under circumstances in which the success of these elites has less and less to do with the type of social change that would make a profound difference in the fortunes of those at the bottom of our socioeconomic order.

This suggestion, that black writers are misguided in their attempts to speak to and for "the race," leads to a second conclusion about African American literature: "Those who write it, and those who write about it, need it to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers." The danger of these conclusions is that in his earnest attempt to "put the past behind us," Warren writes all contemporary writers and critics of African American literature into a declension narrative of cultural politics.

More importantly, he risks pushing the present aside along with history. In his readings of contemporary novels such as Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts and Edward P. Jones's The Known World, Warren shows how racial unity is constructed through characters as they unwisely cling to the dead. These are readings that transform troubled and self-critical representations of blackness into an easy solidarity, a "dream of unity and recollection." Against Warren's reading of the end of The Known World as a fabrication of black unity, for example, I would argue that it is the impulse to black difference — what Stuart Hall announced as "the end of the innocence of the black subject, or the end of the innocent notion of an essential black subject" (Stuart Hall, "What Is This 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?," in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent and Michele Wallace) — that gives us Jones's slaveholding blacks: troubling character types for a post-innocent post-civil rights era.

African American writing, particularly in the age of terror, I would argue, is engaged in a project of reconstitution, one that reflects how African American literature, a self-conscious creative and literary critical enterprise, has been transformed by the post-nationalist shifts in black politics, black studies, and black art. What would it take to theorize these shifts? Would it mean admitting that African American literature is a relic of the past, or would it mean analyzing the narrative and historical uses of blackness in black writing while losing both the fiction of racial unity and the burden of representing "the race"? Does every conjuring of African American literature necessarily erect itself upon an uneasy scaffolding of black solidarity or a conservative notion of canonicity, or can we understand "African American" to be an unstable signifier that names both a possibility and a problem, or, in Evie Shockley's words, an "anchor" and "the troubled sea"?

Indeed, Warren's book proves that through and against history, law, and manners, race is not a fact, not a given, but a fiction that we want. As Robert Reid-Pharr has suggested, perhaps "racial distinction continues to be so fixed an entity within American culture precisely because we like it that way" (Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual). If it is true, as Warren suggests, that post-Reconstruction writers summoned African American literature into being, it was after Jim Crow, and more precisely, after the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 (that is, not in the wake of a failed Reconstruction project but in the wake of a successful civil rights project), that African American literature as discrete, coherent unit of expression, as a market phenomenon, and as an epistemological object became central to the institutionalization of black studies, black art, and black politics. The institutionalization or "academization" of the study of black literature in colleges in universities, then, is not simply "[part] of the story...of what African American literature was, as opposed to what it is now," but the key plot twist. For African American literature was not invented once and for all during Jim Crow; it was afterward, precisely when the legal outcome of or concessions to black protest failed to produce the desired ends of vastly improved quality of life, freedom from poverty, etc. It was precisely with the post-Jim Crow creation of black literature classrooms, that African American writers and critics re-turned to and reinvented "African American literature," again and against history. Perhaps African American literature as we know it is a product of this historical juncture, 1968 to the present, rather than a previous one. Perhaps theorizing more deliberately the persistence of African American literature as the object of our desire will help us better understand how power, race, and reading communities function in the post-civil rights era to deconstruct and reconstruct African American literature through and against the upheavals of time.

What Was African American Literature? merits our most serious deliberation and our most lively debate. Warren asks us — indeed, dares us — to take seriously the history of black writing and to rid ourselves of nostalgia for the idealized racial solidarity borne of legalized segregation. In doing so, he challenges us not to abandon African American literature in favor of a post-racial fantasy, but rather to more sternly and more imaginatively construct literary theories and readings responsible and responsive to our present — a moment that witnesses, even now, a "new black" poet, Evie Shockley, penning an ode to her blackness, calling blackness "the tunnel john henry died/to carve" and going on to see, at the end of it, something of a beginning. By marking an end point for African American literature, Warren defies us to begin the formidable work of the present. 


LARB Contributor

Erica Edwards has written about African American narrative, American popular culture, and the contemporary history of black politics and black social movements in American QuarterlyAmerican Literary HistoryWomen & PerformanceCallaloo, and elsewhere. Her book, Charisma and The Fictions of Black Leadership is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside.


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